Why Use Complementary Colors in a Painting?

Color is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward, but turns out to be really complicated.

For me, lately I have been exploring using complementary colors as a way to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting.

Everyone is familiar of course with the color wheel. It dates back to Newton’s experiments with light, though the idea of color and theory of relationships between colors have gone through various revisions, and the concept of RGB color codes makes the colors on this page and other happen.

The French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (below) seems to get seems to get some of the credit for systematically describing the idea of complementary colors, which he did in his 1839 book The Laws of Contrast of Color. PSM_V27_D450_Michel_Eugene_Chevreul Chevreul’s problem had to do with dyes and tapestry making at the Royal Tapestry Manufactury at Les Gobelins in Paris. The thing was that certain colors of dye looked different depending what other dyes they were near in the finished tapestry, and the tapestry business was all about having bold, consistent colors.

Chevreul found out, among other things, that when two colors touch, the edge where they touch seems to be slightly brighter. Since this was a tapestry, it clearly wasn’t the result of blending colors. It was an optical illusion. And it was a clue that colors aren’t simply properties of nature, that they are not inherent in an object of a particular hue, but that our perceptions of color are formed in our brains, in our process of perceiving color.

Anyways, the important thing is that colors interact in crazy ways in our brains, and sometimes it takes a lot of work and close observation to even be able to tell what is happening.

colourwheel01Complementary colors, of course, are those colors that are directly opposite of each other on the color wheel. So purple complements yellow, blue complements orange, and red complements green.

The word “complementary” to describe this relationship is a little odd, because these color pairings seem to clash together, if anything. For the eye to move from one to the other is a big leap, a leap all the way across the color wheel. They’re garish in a way. Shocking. The combinations leap out at you.

Below are some examples from the internet, and for me these bold combinations of orange and blue really set me on edge. I have a visceral reaction. The combination is electric. It “flashes” so to speak.

Of course this is only the most dramatic use of complementary colors. More subtle uses of complementary colors can have powerful effects too.

On the recent sketch trip I took up Upper Camp Creek road, I focused in particular on using complementary colors to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting. It was a green green spring day, so the easiest complementary color to use was red, like below.

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Of course the image of the red barn is somewhat cliche, but it is true that the red is a striking contrast to the green of the farmland and hills. (As a side note, because I couldn’t help but google this, farmers used to use linseed oil to paint their barns and they would add rust to the linseed oil, to help kill moss and that sort of thing, which also happened to turn the linseed oil mixture red).

The red of the barn clearly stands out as the most eye catching part of this sketch, which combined with the value contrast set up by the areas of white, help to draw the eye in. (Having the barn more or less at the center of the painting like that probably wasn’t the greatest idea, but that’s another story.)

This painting below, which I did at home based on sketches from that day, was another easy one to set up using red to contrast the green vegetation. Again, the complementary colors paired with the value contrast makes for a pretty powerful tool. (Is the perspective off on the barn? I think maybe a little. But sometimes I look at these things too long and just can’t tell anymore.)

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I tried a similar approach with the painting below (also from the same series of paintings from Upper Camp Creek).

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I feel a little uncertain about how this one turned out. I was trying to push the burnt sienna of the background trees towards red (using alizarin crimson), to contrast withe the green roof. I also added alizarin to the tree trunk color.  I’m not sure it was successful. Did it get a little too washed out? Was the red not concentrated enough? I added a dash of alizarin to the bush in the lower right corner, which I like from a technical point of view (i.e. I added the color at the right time with the right amount of water on the paper) but not sure how much it contributes to what I was going for.

Another thing is that maybe my value contrasts were a little bit off, and the contrast between the green trees in the background and the brown trees in front of them is too strong, while the value differences between the shadowed side of the building and the tree and the edge of the roof, those value differences aren’t strong enough and so can’t compete with the value differences in the background….

I also managed to get a yellow/purple complement between the purpleish shadow of the building and the yellowish vegetation to the left. So there is the green-red combo of the roof and the purple-yellow combo of the side of the building. Maybe with the addition of this second set of complements, there was just too much going on? I’m not sure.

One thought on “Why Use Complementary Colors in a Painting?

  1. Wow these are all flat out amazing honestly. You seem to have really mastered your technique. Great stuff! You’ve got my follow. Check out my comedy blog and give it a follow if you like it!


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